A Twin Otter aircraft at the South Pole on a previous medical evacuation flight. (Photo: Robert Schwarz)

A rare and dangerous mission launched last week: a mid-winter trip to the South Pole. 

The mission, necessitated after two workers at the National Science Foundation’s Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station became sick, was only the third such trip ever attempted. 

The flights are made in pitch-black darkness and in temperatures hovering around 75 degrees below zero, a challenging environment for humans to survive, much less fly in. But yesterday, the NSF said that the mission had been successful, and the workers were now receiving treatment in Chile. 

The rescue plane—a specially-equipped aircraft known as a Twin Otter—had initially left Rothera, a British research station on the northern tip of Antarctica, on Monday, bound for the South Pole, where, after several hours of flying, it landed safely and retrieved the two sick workers. They returned to Rothera on Wednesday afternoon, departing from there to Punta Arenas, Chile, where they arrived late Wednesday night. 

The NSF did not give details on the two workers’ identities or medical conditions, but the Associated Press reported that a hospital in Punta Arenas had received one man and one woman. The man had a heart attack, the AP reported, but was able to walk into the hospital. The woman had an unspecified “gastric problem,” and was on a stretcher. 

Forty-six people (now down from 48) are set to stay at Amundsen-Scott for the Antarctic winter, which lasts from March to October. There, they do experiments and maintain the installation, which will celebrate its 60th anniversary this year. 

And while it may be mid-winter in Antarctica, in the midst of the rescue, an important milestone occurred: June 21’s winter solstice. Antarctica’s darkest days, in other words, are now behind it, for this year anyway.